Utah 100, LA Lakers 113
After the first few possessions, I could feel that this would be a good effort from our boys. It wasn’t the easy offensive production or overall team play. It was the crispness of the defense. Kobe and Bynum both got early blocks, and the Lakers forced the Jazz into a number of mid-range jumpers that clearly were not what they were looking for. That, along with a cruising game from Kobe, got the Lakers off to a fantastic start, finishing the first quarter up 17.
They gave up a bit of a run to close the half and went into the locker room up by (just?) 14. It sounds like a sizable lead, but against Sloan and the Jazz, you know it’s going to take more to get the win. And sure enough, Utah went on a quick run to start the third and cut the lead to just three before the Lakers re-found their focus and closed the quarter on a 14-2 run. The Jazz never got that close again, although they did whittle it down to four late in the fourth, but the Lakers handled all their surges calmly and closed the game in fine fashion, thanks largely to some re-diculous play by Trevor Ariza. With two and a half minutes left and a six point lead, the Lakers tracked back on defense with Ariza picking up CJ Miles at the top of the key. Miles moved to cross the ball over, but Ariza was too quick and tapped the ball away, sparking a fast break that resulted in a three point play for Trevor. On the next offensive possession, he snuck in and grabbed a rebound and put it back to extend the lead further. He wasn’t finished, though, as he closed out the game with yet another defensive hustle play and a dunk to cap his effort, which included 5 assists on the night.
Plenty of other Lakers had great games too. Kobe had an almost effortless 40 points in 38 minutes, bringing his two-game production to an absurdly efficient 71 points in 70 minutes. He didn’t take many bad shots and played some solid defense against Deron Williams, who was held to 10 points on 4-of-18 shooting. Pau Gasol was a sparkplug tonight as well, becoming just the fourth European player to come straight to the NBA and score 10,000 points. He had another complete game with 21, 11, and 6. The highlight of the night was Pau leading the break at the end of the game, reverse-dribbling between his legs, faking the pass to the right, and finally no-looking it over to Ariza on the left for the dunk. It was a little unnecessary at that point in the game, but it was nice to see Pau loose and having fun out there. A little personality never hurt anybody.
This makes four good games in a row for the Lakers. It’s not that there haven’t been issues in that stretch – there most definitely have – but they haven’t let themselves be tripped up by them for extended periods of time and have finally decided that defense may be worth their time again. It was encouraging to see them hold their own against Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, and Deron Williams, players who I fully expected to rip us to shreds. While I wouldn’t mind seeing them keep that monstrous lead for the full 48, it was understandable that they would wane a little bit over the course of the game and let the dedicated Utah team back in. Props to them for buckling down when they needed to and never letting them all the way back (because within three doesn’t count, right?).
Now the pace really starts to pick up. They are embarking upon a run of 14 games in 26 days, including a number of match-ups with stiff Western Conference opposition. After knocking off Utah, they will face Portland on Sunday followed by New Orleans Tuesday. I tend to believe that the quicker pace of games will help them find their rhythm, but after seeing them run rampant tonight following a five-day hiatus, I’m not so sure. In any case, they have plenty of chances to cement their place at the top of the Western Conference and keep pace with the two biggies back east. As they say, the real test is how you’re playing in April, and if they keep building on this kind of effort, they will be right where they want to be.
No highlights yet, but check out the Pau School of Dribbling: